Brothers in Bluegrass

For two consecutive years, the Roots crew has had the pleasure of filming for live webcast the amazing International Bluegrass Music Association Awards. And in those same two years, The Gibson Brothers have won the coveted, top-of-the-mountain Entertainer of the Year Award. Coincidence? You decide. I’m just saying that when Eric and Leigh Gibson get their heart-felt, sincere and wonderful selves near our cameras, amazing things happen. And I feel sure that will be true this week when this stellar duo and their band play Music City Roots. Nor are they the only bluegrass brothers featured this week. The Roland White Band is playing the show for the first time, and if you know your bluegrass history, you know he was part of a profoundly influential brother band, besides his many other accomplishments.

Eric and Leigh Gibson’s career has been more tortoise than hare, but that’s how longevity, loyalty and credibility are built and maintained in the church of Bill Monroe. And you can’t argue with the results. The guys grew up on a family farm in upstate New York and found their voices, instruments and partnership early, releasing their first album in 1994. In a genre that was famous for its brother duos from its formative days, there weren’t many on the circuit when the Gibsons emerged, so they got noticed for their close harmonies. They covered songs by key influences such as the Louvin Brothers, but they also showed aptitude for writing in the classic vein. They graduated from tiny Hay Holler Records to the prestigious Sugar Hill and Compass labels, all the while releasing quality material until gradually they began reaching landmarks of success. In 2010 they won two IBMA awards for gospel song and performance. In 2011 they earned Album of the Year for the project Help My Brother and Vocal Group of the year. And that set the table for the big awards in 2012 and ’13. So they’re veterans but they’re smack in the middle of their career with a long and open road ahead. With their debut on Roots, you’ll be hearing the state of the art in classic bluegrass music.

Nashville gentleman of the mandolin Roland White was born in 1938, about a decade before bluegrass music itself. But home-made folk and country music was a big part of his big family as he grew up in Maine. Then when the family moved to California, he and his brothers got on the radio as The Country Boys. Before long, Roland and Clarence were the core The Kentucky Colonels, an iconic band that influenced Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, J.D. Crowe and others. Clarence was a flatpicking phenom who revolutionized acoustic guitar playing and collaborated with The Byrds before his untimely death. Roland continued with, of all people, the father of bluegrass Bill Monroe. Because Roland White is an easy guy to get to know around Nashville (he’s a teacher and a fixture in the community) it’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s the rhythm guitar on “The Gold Rush” and “Walls of Time” among other classics. It gets more amazing. He toured with Lester Flatt. For 13 years Roland was part of Country Gazette, another super-influential and expansive band revered by insiders. And then he spent another ten years playing in the Nashville Bluegrass Band, yet another vital group in the history of the music. It’s hard to find anyone with a more consequential and impressive resume than Roland, and he’ll bring his own band on Wednesday.

The week’s lineup begins to look like a mini bluegrass festival, as we feature yet another flavor of the old-time sound with the Foghorn String Band, an ensemble out of Portland, Oregon that keeps it true to tradition. And they’ve earned a lot of love for doing so. Portland critic Ned Lannamann wrote: “the quartet is among the finest practitioners of American old-time music on the globe. . .In a town that’s riddled with whimsical throwbacks to old-timey fetishes, Foghorn Stringband remain absolutely authentic and without discernible gimmick.” The band has played all over the world including our part of the land at the IBMA convention and Bristol Rhythm & Roots. But this will be their first appearance at the Loveless Barn.

And speaking of Portland, that’s also the home town of Nichole Lynn Cooper, though three years ago she uprooted and moved cross country to plant her flag in Nashville. That synchs with the time I began hearing about her and the mighty band and buzz she was building. You might first notice her wild red hair and throwback Summer of Love style, but it’s focused energy and slamming funky soul that’s putting Cooper And The Jam on the Music City map. We’re excited to feature her as this week’s MCR emerging artist.

And the show will open with an old friend from Brooklyn. Miss Tess played our second ever Music City Roots in the Fall of 2009. Only then her band was called the Bon Ton Parade and now it’s called The Talkbacks. But the vibe is an evolution of the sound we fell for, with a beguiling blend of thrift-store and hip boutique. One of my favorite tracks on Roots Radio takes us back to a prior Miss Tess visit when they played their shimmying little number “People Come Here For Gold.” Love that song and I love the way Miss Tess writes a song and leads a band.

So it might be a nice night to wear something vintage and really get in touch with that spirit of radio from before the days of TV. Bring your brothers and your sisters too.

Craig H.

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